I’m just wild about saffron

We’ve Nibbled the crocusbank — a global collection of Crocus sativus funded by the EU and hosted in Cuenca, Spain — before. So it is good to be able to bring you an update from José Antonio Fernández, Crocusbank Coordinator.1

There’s a lot of fascinating information in the article. The genebank itself currently contains 454 accessions, 197 of them saffron crocus from 15 different countries and the rest wild relatives from more than 50 crocus species. And I had no idea that there were quite so many Protected Denominations of Origin for saffron; 7 granted and at least 5 more on the way. Which is a puzzle …

C. sativus is a sterile triploid. That is going to make using the assembled diversity to breed a little more difficult, and raises definite questions about how much diversity is represented in the collection, because the plant reproduces asexually and is generally propagated by replanting the little offsets that form at the base of the corm. Asexual reproduction of this sort does not usually give rise to much genetic diversity, and so it has proved. Back in March we briefly Nibbled “Many saffron clones identical shock,” a preliminary report on the work of Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison at Leicester University in England.

Saffron is all hand-harvested, hand processed and dried in different ways, which is why saffron from the major growing areas of Spain, Italy, Greece, Iran or Kashmir all have different qualities and characteristics.

What we’ve been looking at is the genetic diversity within the different types of saffron that are grown and we have found that many of the clones grown worldwide are genetically identical. It’s only the processing that makes the product different.

That and, perhaps, terroir. So, does the genebank need to keep all those genetically identical accessions of saffron crocus, or might it be sufficient to preserve only the knowledge of how to harvest, process and dry the saffron in all those different ways? How would you do that anyway?

There are, of course, some genetically diverse accessions, which are coming under closer scrutiny to discover “their special characteristics, and why they’ve dropped out of production in many of the world’s saffron producing areas”.

There are other mysteries, too, such as the parents of the saffron crocus. One is believed to be C. cartwrightianus, which has similar large stigmas, but the other remains unknown. If it can be identified, it might be possible to recreate the saffron crocus from its wild ancestors, as has been done for bread wheat, which could offer a whole new range of diversity to saffron growers.

  1. The photo is copyright José Antonio Fernández. []

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